by Peter J. O'Connell
Hereditary. Released: June 2018. Runtime: 127 mins. MPAA Rating: R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity.
“All happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So wrote Tolstoy. In Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, Annie Graham's family is definitely an unhappy one, and in some sui generis ways.
Annie (Toni Collette) is a miniaturist artist who makes houses and fills them with furnishings and people, all in small scale. But it is as if some malignant force has been manipulating Annie's own household and family life for years.
The movie begins with the funeral of Annie's mother. In a eulogy Annie relates that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, who was extremely secretive and, along with other members of her family, suffered from a variety of mental illnesses that resulted in their deaths. Annie will have a number of haunting visions of her mother during the course of events.
As for Annie's own immediate family: husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is well-meaning but rather ineffectual; daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is an odd 13-year-old who has visions of her grandmother, makes clucking noises, and cuts the heads off birds; son Peter (Alex Wolff), struggling in high school, is more interested in girls and pot than his classes. And Peter's relationship with his mother is a difficult one, too. That may be because Annie never wanted to give birth to him and tried several times to induce a miscarriage. And the fact that once, while she was sleepwalking, Annie seemed about to immolate Peter didn't warm things up between the two.
When Annie tries to bring Charlie and Peter closer together by having Peter take his sister to a party, tragedy results. Charlie dies a horrible death. Peter then begins to have visions, including “auditory” ones, of his dead sister.
After this tragedy, Annie resumes attending a grief-counseling support group that she attended following her mother's death. There she becomes involved with a friendly seeming but somewhat mysterious woman named Joan (Ann Dowd). Joan teaches Annie how to conduct a séance to connect with Charlie. This actually doesn't turn out well and leads to a variety of visions, levitations, immolations, and attempted murders.
Annie eventually learns of a longstanding connection between Joan and Annie's mother, and Peter learns that the forces influencing his family's life—and deaths—may be from Hell itself, and are male chauvinist!
Molly Shapiro provides a fairly pedestrian odd girl performance. Toni Collette goes over the top as Annie—but the character herself is pretty much over the top. Alex Wolff is just right as Peter. And Ann Dowd is topnotch as Joan. Hereditary proceeds in segments, so to speak, each of which in isolation is somewhat gripping, but what do they all add up to? Is it really a coherent story of supernatural horror, such as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist? Or is Hereditary simply a collection of supernatural horror tropes gathered from those movies and their successors and thrown onto the screen to see what sticks? But, of course, each moviegoer will have to decide personally if Hereditary has been put together in a way that makes him/her happy or unhappy after viewing.